Communicating for Change

The university where I work, like most universities, is facing significant challenges from multiple fronts. To meet these challenges, we’re finding that we need to change the way we do business. The question that I’ve been pondering is how to get people on board with change, especially when that change means an increase in work load. In the last year and a half, I have been persuaded that some efforts that I had not originally supported were good changes for the University. Proponents of other efforts, however, have been unable to persuade me that the extra work required for implementation would be worth the effort. There is currently a change on the table and the proponents of the change have done a poor job of communicating the benefits of the extra work involved in making the change. So I’ve been thinking about how that group could have done better in getting the community to commit to making the suggested change. Here’s what I think you need to do to gain support of people whose (work) lives are affected by a change you are proposing:

1. Clearly identify the problem you’re trying to solve. Make sure your stakeholders understand why the problem is a problem for them or for groups that they care about. This step is also important so that you can later determine whether the change you are proposing actually solves the problem you’ve identified. Saying “we need to do better” is not a clear articulation of a problem. What do we need to do better? Why do we need to do better? What are the negative consequences of the way we’re currently doing things? Who thinks we need to do something better? Try to figure out why not doing better negatively impacts on the various stakeholders. How could their lives be better if we changed the way we’re doing things?

2. Initiate an inclusive process for generating solutions to that problem. You and your group can sit in a room and think up solutions to your now clearly identified problem but you’re all likely looking at the problem from a similar perspective. Identify other groups to explain the problem to and ask them to generate some solutions. Send out surveys, run focus groups, attend meetings of a variety of stakeholders. Ask for feedback in a bunch of different ways. Keep track of all of the possible solutions generated, even the ones that seem kind of crazy at first.

3. For each solution, identify pros and cons and the overall impact of those pros and cons. There may be some solutions whose cons are so great that they create bigger problems than the original problem you’re trying to solve. Make sure you understand how these solutions will impact each group of stakeholders.

4. Choose the solution that solves the biggest portion of the problem but that also generates the fewest additional problems. Try to think about unwanted, unintended consequences. There’s no sense in solving a problem only to create larger, worse problems. Go back to the groups who generated your list of solutions and ask them what they think about the solution that you think is best. Ask them what the consequences will be. And don’t ignore any of the feedback you receive. You can use the feedback to anticipate objections to the solution when you propose it to the larger community.

5. Develop an implementation plan that acknowledges the difficulties with implementing any significant change. Be sure to weigh whether those difficulties are worth the effort given the original problem that you are trying to solve.

6. Share the entire process that you’ve gone through to develop a solution with the people who will be affected by the change. Listen to their feedback and try to deal with as many of their concerns as possible, either by making them go away (by changing the solution or the implementation to address the concern) or by acknowledging the concern but explaining why the solution will make their overall lives better, so that whatever their concern is will be dwarfed by the relief in having solved the original problem.

7. Although you will never be able to please everyone, only implement solutions that actually solve the problem identified. If you can’t articulate how the solution solves the problem in a way that gets people to understand what you’re doing and why, perhaps the solution is not a good one.

The group that is currently proposing a change has not done any of these steps. They have proposed a solution to a problem that they have not clearly articulated. The solution was generated by their group alone and when they brought the idea to another group that I’m a part of, they got feedback that the proposed change had a lot of problems, including some probable unintended, unwanted consequences. But then they have ignored that feedback and told us that they are implementing the change anyway, without even acknowledging that they got any negative feedback at all.

I’m hoping that I can use my better understanding of what I think should happen for buy-in to occur to explain to the group why what they’re doing is problematic, so that they’ll go back to the drawing board and reexamine the issue. And I hope I can keep this lesson in mind the next time I’m part of a group that wants to initiate change.

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